Stylized line drawing of mark playing the flute

Middle School Shadow Economy

In the absence of cold, hard cash, people will find some other currency to use.

In prison, its 3'5 ounce pouches of mackerel. Its 4 ounce bags of instant coffee. Or, for high value transactions, its books of 20 postage stamps. You can pay to have your cell cleaned, settle a gambling debt, or get a haircut without physical money ever changing hands.

On the street, Tide has become an alternative currency for buying drugs. A 150 ounce bottle of Tide can be traded for $5 cash or $10 worth of harder drugs. Whole task forces have been created just to deal with Tide theft from stores. People are being arrested for run huge Tide-smuggling rings.

When I was a kid, we did our wheeling and dealing with Atomic Fireballs. I was in 7th grade in the late 1980s when fireballs became the currency of choice.

It started innocently enough. People were just bringing them in to eat. Maybe they’d hand a few out to friends, nothing too crazy.

Then the school banned them and everyone went nuts.

Kids would sneak them in and sell them for $0'10 a piece, then $0'25. I think they topped out at $0'50 a piece which was nuts since they cost a nickel or less if you bought them in bulk.

People started using fireballs to pay for other things. Paying back a debt you owed. Buying someone’s dessert at lunch. 3 fireballs. 4 fireballs. You owe me 2 fireballs. He owes me 3 fireballs, I’ll pay you when I get them.

It was nuts.

I happened to be in the office one day when a huge β€œbust” went down. A kid in my grade got caught selling fireballs in the hall between classes. They dragged him into the office and emptied his bag out on the secretary’s desk.

He had his binder on top of a thick layer of cardboard which sat on top of a gallon ziplock bag full of fireballs. The street value of all that candy had to have been over $20.

They threw all the candy away and he spent a week in detention.